Hillsborough native, UNC graduate helped develop COVID-19 vaccine
Posted December 16, 2020 10:29 a.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2020 11:38 a.m. EST
(CNN) -- Dr. Anthony Fauci and Gov. Roy Cooper are both praising Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill graduate and a Hillsborough native, for her work to help develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Fauci is urging Black Americans hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine to trust the process -- in part because one of the scientists at the forefront of the vaccine's development is a Black woman.
The nation's top infectious disease expert, speaking at an event hosted by the National Urban League on Tuesday, said it was important to acknowledge the US history of racism in medical research and understand how that has fostered mistrust among some Black people.
But Fauci stressed that the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, adding that African American scientists have been involved in their development.
"The very vaccine that's one of the two that has absolutely exquisite levels -- 94 to 95% efficacy against clinical disease and almost 100% efficacy against serious disease that are shown to be clearly safe -- that vaccine was actually developed in my institute's vaccine research center by a team of scientists led by Dr. Barney Graham and his close colleague, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, or Kizzy Corbett," Fauci said.
Cooper tweeted, "Proud of this North Carolinian and her remarkable achievement. Dr. Corbett will go down in history for paving the way to help us beat this pandemic."
Corbett is the National Institute of Health's lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research and a UNC graduate. She is part of a team that worked with the biotechnology company Moderna on one of the two mRNA vaccines expected to receive emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration this month. Pfizer's vaccine candidate is the other one.
"So, the first thing you might want to say to my African American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you're going to be taking was developed by an African American woman," Fauci added. "And that is just a fact."
Experts are trying to build confidence
Black Americans and other people of color have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, increasing the urgency among health experts and community leaders to build confidence and trust in the vaccine.
But skepticism among some people of color, especially Black Americans, remains high.
A study released by the COVID Collaborative, the NAACP and UnidosUS found that only 14% of Black Americans trust that a vaccine will be safe and 18% trust it will be effective. Their concerns stem largely from a history of racism in medical research and healthcare that includes incidents like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the study found.
Corbett told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta that she sees vaccine hesitancy in Black communities firsthand. Rebuilding trust in medical institutions will take time, she said, and that's something that health experts have to accept.
"I would say to people who are vaccine-hesitant that you've earned the right to ask the questions that you have around these vaccines and this vaccine development process," she says in an episode of the CNN podcast "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction."
For her part, Corbett said she is trying to help earn back that trust.
She has been outspoken on the role systemic racism has played in the pandemic, and has criticized the Trump administration for a lack of diversity on its coronavirus task force.
"Trust, especially when it has been stripped from people, has to be rebuilt in a brick-by-brick fashion," she said. "And so, what I say to people firstly is that I empathize, and then secondly is that I'm going to do my part in laying those bricks. And I think that if everyone on our side, as physicians and scientists, went about it that way, then the trust would start to be rebuilt."
Fauci addresses specific concerns
Fauci is taking a similar approach.
He said he generally hears two major concerns about the vaccines: the speed at which they were developed, and their safety and efficacy.
Though vaccines have traditionally taken years or even decades to develop, advancements in vaccine platform technology have significantly shortened that process without compromising safety or scientific integrity, Fauci said.
He also addressed concerns that pharmaceutical companies or the federal government couldn't be trusted to assess the safety of the vaccine, saying that both are advised by independent committees made up of experienced clinicians, scientists and ethicists.
Those independent experts, not politicians, determine whether the vaccine is safe for the public, he added.
"When they then say that the vaccine is safe and effective, I will tell you all that I, myself, will be perfectly comfortable in taking the vaccine and I will recommend it to my family," Fauci said.